Taking the Plunge - the Dale Carnegie Way for ESL Speakers to Overcome the Fear of Speaking Up

Dale Breckenridge Carnegie (1888-1955) is known the world over for his contributions to helping people overcome the fear of speaking in public. He has developed numerous course materials to help with public speaking. Carnegie is also recognized for his contributions as an American writer and lecturer. He developed additional courses in self-improvement, salesmanship, corporate training, and interpersonal skills. When asked how to overcome self-consciousness and the fear of public speaking, this is what he replied in The Art of Public Speaking:

                                                                                     Did you ever notice in looking from a train window that some

                                                                                   horses feed near the track and never even pause to look up at the

                                                                                     thundering cars, while just ahead at the next railroad crossing a

                                                                                    farmer's wife will be nervously trying to quiet her scared horse as

                                                                                                                        the train goes by?

                                                                                    How would you cure a horse that is afraid of cars—graze him in a

                                                                                        back-woods lot where he would never see steam-engines or

                                                                                    automobiles, or drive or pasture him where he would frequently see

                                                                                                                        the machines?

                                                                                   Apply horse-sense to ridding yourself of self-consciousness and

                                                                         fear: face an audience as frequently as you can, and you will soon stop shying.

                                                                                                                    You can never attain

                                                                                  freedom from stage-fright by reading a treatise. A book may give

                                                                                  you excellent suggestions on how best to conduct yourself in the

                                                                                water, but sooner or later you must get wet, perhaps even strangle

                                                                                 and be "half scared to death." There are a great many "wetless"

                                                                                  bathing suits worn at the seashore, but no one ever learns to swim

                                                                                                                           in them.

To plunge is the only way.

Carnegie knew all about taking “the plunge”. He specialized in helping others overcome glossophobia or speech anxiety. Glossophobia is a fancy word meaning the fear of public speaking or of speaking in general. Carnegie wanted to help others maximize their academic, social and career goals so he developed a series of self-help books to address this common fear of speaking in public.

Signs of glossophobia range from simple jitters of thinking about this task to actual anxiety attacks and stage fright.  Your voice might be weak, your mouth dries up, and your body shakes. Your face might turn red, you might sweat, and your heart beats faster. Everyone reacts differently when they speak in public and this may vary from situation to situation. But most people when asked have some fear associated with speaking in public. In fact, there is research to support that public speaking is the number #1 thing that frightens the majority of people the world over. It ranks even higher than the fear of death.

This fear can present day-to-day problems. If this is the case, then the fear also may hinder your ability to engage in conversation at school, the workplace, and in the community. You might avoid interactions. This inevitably impacts your ESL language speaking practice which influences your English language progress. It will be harder for you to become a fluent speaker. And the cycle continues.

Most jobs require some level of speaking in front of others. You might be involved in a brainstorming session, working on a team project, sharing ideas with a client, presenting at a meeting, talking with your boss and other people in management, etc. Even in school, there are situations that rely on your speaking in front of others. You ask questions, are asked to answer or give your opinion, you work on group projects, you make presentations, etc. It is almost impossible to go out into the community and not communicate. Think of all of the times you interface with people during a given day, week and month.

It is important to admit you have a fear and then work through this fear. There are several concrete ways to overcome your fears. Here are some helpful tips for you to practice during more informal and smaller conversations and meetings, or in larger and more formal presentations. Remember, “To plunge is the only way”.

Identify and confront your fears

Try to analyze your fears.  Do they occur every time you speak in public? Can you determine why you are fearful? Could it be that you might think that you are wrong? Maybe you get embarrassed or believe that you look foolish, especially in front of your boss or certain colleagues or business associates. Maybe you need to develop your vocabulary, speak more quickly, or work on your accent. Have you prepared? Do you know your topic? Are you comfortable with the audience? What happens when you develop a fear? Are you nervous? Do you physically show this in your facial expressions and body language?  Do you stumble over words or forget them? Some suggestions would be to sign up for a public speaking course or workshop, take ESL classes online and work with a teacher specifically on public speaking (vocabulary, accent reduction, etc.), join a discussion group (English-speaking group interested in politics/book discussions/current events, etc.), find a tutor to talk with, develop friendship(s) with native English speakers, and to be aware of the need to keep speaking in public.

When I was in graduate school, one of my professors offered his advice to improve public speaking. He said to use each opportunity for speaking and presenting in class as practice to help you overcome your fears and to improve your speaking skills. He advised us to set some personal goals. Maybe you could try to speak at least one time in each class or tell yourself that you are going to contribute to every meeting you attend. Then in a few weeks, revisit your goals and adjust them. Try to push yourself to do more. Once you have the habit of speaking, you will begin to feel more comfortable in speaking and within time, your fears will be reduced. They may be eliminated altogether. You will have more confidence. Remember habits are formed. You can target them, and work to change them. It just takes effort and continued work.

Start small, but start

If you are like most people, you might feel more comfortable speaking in front of one of your family members or a good friend, at first. Then when you have found success with this, move to speaking in front of smaller groups of people. This could be your relatives, neighbors, a group of fellow students, or a small group of people you work with who might be in your same department or those who are working on your team or project, etc. It might even be some people you know in a community setting like a health club or other social activity. After you feel at ease in smaller groups and you have participated more easily and consistently in work, school or community gatherings, then move on to larger group settings. Tell yourself that you can do it. Then do just that. Find a larger group where you can take the plunge.

Piggyback off or on other people’s comments

If it is difficult for you to think of what to say or you just don’t have the words to say it, a helpful suggestion would be to piggyback off/piggyback on someone’s comments. This expression “to piggyback off or to piggyback on” means that you say something that connects to what someone else just said. You can extend what they have said, you can agree with it, or you can disagree in some way. Even if you are not the first to voice an opinion, and the thoughts and ideas might not be your own, you are still taking part in conversation and contributing ideas. You are getting practice in speaking in front of a group, which in turn will help you build toward speaking more frequently and for longer periods of time. You will gain confidence along with skills in speaking and by doing so, you will acquire more of the English language. People will view you as an active participant.

Rehearse ahead of time

Sometimes there is no way around it. You are asked your opinion about “this and that” or you are called on to comment on something. You might be required to give an oral presentation or to lead a committee.  If this is the case, the best way to calm your nerves and to prevent those jitters is to practice. At home, you might try looking in front of a mirror and imagine speaking to a larger group. You can write notes down on index cards and practice parts of your speech throughout the day. You could post these in different parts of your house so you practice more frequently. It would be helpful to ask a friend or family member to hear your speech. He/she can watch your body language, movements, and facial expression. You will be able to practice your eye contact, too. It is always best that you engage your audience by looking at them. Try to scan your audience and include everyone. You can highlight certain words, summarize what you will say with bullet points, or write the notes on notecards in an organized way for you to follow.  Your audience, during these practice sessions, can suggest areas of improvement. Maybe you say the word “um” too much, or you look down at your notes too long, maybe it is difficult to understand certain words you say or your speech needs a few more transitions or examples, etc. You could read some “good speeches” or check some books out at the library or online about public speaking and how to deliver a quality speech. By practicing ahead of time, you will be more at ease in what you need to present. In time, parts of your presentation will be committed to memory, and you will be able to relax more and react to the audience when the “real” presentation occurs. You will undoubtedly be able to smile more and the audience will read your mannerisms as someone who is confident and prepared. You will be viewed as someone who has something to say and commands respect.

Put things into perspective

I know that it is often easy to think that you might “goof up” somewhere in your speech. And you might also think that you have nothing really good to offer anyone. You might honestly believe that what you say is just too common or too boring – there is nothing new. But you need to remember that the people in the room who make up your audience and the people out in any community interaction really want you to succeed. And sometimes, what you think is a “stupid idea or stupid question” or something you feel has been overstated, these might not be so stupid or over-used after all. You never know. What you say in your message or how you deliver it might be enough to get someone else thinking. It might cause a positive reaction. The more you speak and listen to what others have to say in an assortment of situations both informal and formal, the more your fear of saying something stupid or not really of added value will decrease. Maybe it will disappear completely.

So, put your speaking in perspective. What is the worst thing that could happen? Maybe someone does not like your idea or agree with your opinion. Possibly your suggestion is turned down. Or the audience does not clap as loud as you had hoped. If you are out in public, maybe someone does not hear you or they don’t exactly understand what you are saying. So you repeat it. How much does that really matter? You took an opportunity and you expressed something. You showed that you are a contributor, that you have ideas and opinions, and that you wanted to help in some way. Or you wanted to interact. You were not apathetic. You were not disengaged. You were not negative.Dale Carnegie would be proud of you. I am, too. You faced the audience as frequently as you could. You did not shy away. You “strangled with being half scared with death (in this case the fear of public speaking)” and you learned to confidently speak in public. You mastered it! You took the plunge!


Write to me and let me know about taking the plunge in your public speaking. What motivated you? How did you increase practice? What were some of the results? Speak to me, I will be happy to listen.

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